HL Deb 20 March 1923 vol 53 cc413-39

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the story of the imperfections of our electoral system is no new one to your Lordships' House. It is a matter which has been discussed very often, and not only here but also in another place. It has been the theme of speeches upon many public platforms for a good many years, and a number of philosophers have written about it, and produced very elaborate systems for overcoming its difficulties. To the old system I do not think there were ever so many objections as there are at the present time. New elements have been introduced into our political life by the advent of a new political Party, and a system which was excellent for the days when there were only two political Parties is not well suited for these days when we have three. And it is especially with regard to the fact that there are now three Parties that I have ventured to introduce a Bill for discussion.

I have said that it is not a new story. There have been curious incidents in the past. In 1886 the Government, which had a majority of 104 votes in another place, received 100,000 votes fewer than did their opponents. In 1895, when the majority was 150, the votes which were given to the two political Parties were about equal. And I do not suppose, though I have not the figures with me, that the vast majority which the Government enjoyed in 1906 was justified by the number of votes which were given. It is almost inevitable, when there is a considerable wave of opinion in this country, that there should be a larger number of Members of Parliament representing that wave than the exact number of recorded votes would allot. But the position now is very different. In those days it was the general wish of the country that one political Party should be in power, and the fact that that Party had a considerable majority was certainly very much for the convenience of public affairs. With that I do not think that there was any very serious ground of complaint.

But, as I have said, the position is different now, and the existence of the difference was to some extent recognised by the Speaker's Conference which reported at the beginning of 1917, after having sat for some time under the chairmanship of the then Speaker, the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater. Some of your Lordships may remember that they recommended generally a system of Proportional Representation, and in places where Proportional Representa- tion was not suitable there was to be a system of the alternative vote. Recommendation 63 says: At any election in a single-member constituency where there are more than two candidates the election shall be held on the system of voting known as the alternative vote. Many of us remember the very interesting discussions which took place in this House, the Amendments which we embodied in the Representation of the People Bill, and the way in which at the last moment your Lordships' House did not insist upon the Amendments which were then inserted, so that the Bill passed practically in its original shape.

The principle of this Bill having been recommended by the Speaker's Conference, at any rate I may say for if that there is nothing in it of a very revolutionary character. I admit that I do not look forward to the alternative vote as solving all the difficulties and remedying all the defects in our electoral system to-day. It is only part of a general measure of reform. What system will ultimately be adopted it is impossible for us to say. A Royal Commission which was appointed something like fifteen years ago went very thoroughly into the matter and various systems were catalogued, so that when His Majesty's present Government, or any other Government, think it necessary to make some change they will find these schemes ready to their hands, and the task will not be a difficult one.

Now I turn to the General Election of last year in which, as I have already said, there was a very grave difference from any other General Election which has taken place in this country. His Majesty's Government now in office secured 5,474,000 votes, but they are in office as the result of a minority vote because no fewer than 8,863,000 votes were given to the other political Parties. Therefore, for the first time, we have in existence a Government which is elected only by a minority of the people of the country. I shall venture to quote one or two other figures bearing upon this matter. First, with regard to the number of votes per seat. The Labour Party, to secure their seats, had to get 30,800 votes for each seat: the Liberal Party. 37,000: and the Conservative Party only 17,900 votes. In the Midland area in which I live there were thirty-three fights, and the Conservative Party, with 316,620 votes, secured seventeen Members, Labour, with 242,136 votes, got seven Members and the Liberals, with 333,615 votes, got nine Members. Your Lordships will see that in this case the Conservative Party, with 316,000 votes, obtained very nearly twice as many Members as the Liberal Party with 333,615 votes.

I do not look upon that result. with any resentment, but I think it is an important matter to be considered with regard to the future. It is not at all inconceivable—indeed, I suppose most noble Lords will admit that it is exceedingly likely—that there will be a swing of the pendulum upon the next occasion. It would not be very much to assume that there would be an addition of, say, ten per cent. in the Labour vote and a reduction of ten per cent. in the Conservative vote at the next General Election. Supposing that were to happen we should then find the Labour Party in office, with perhaps the same majority as that which is enjoyed by noble Lords opposite to-day. The difference between the number of votes received by the two Parties is about 20 per cent., and, therefore, if there was an increase of 10 per cent. in the Labour vote and a reduction of 10 per cent. in the Conservative vote there would be no reason why the Labour Party should not then be in office with the same majority as that which is enjoyed by the present Government. That is not a prospect which fills me with particular alarm, but it is an instance of the way in which the present electoral system does not necessarily represent the full opinion of the people of this country.

Of course, this Bill does not pretend to be in any sense a perfect Bill. I am afraid that I saw one or two misprints in it, when reading it over the other day, for which, no doubt, I am responsible. But I am anxious that your Lordships' House should have an opportunity of discussing this matter, and it seemed to me on the whole better that it should be discussed on a definite Bill than upon a somewhat abstract Resolution. We are familiar in this House with the criticism that what we say is purely destructive, and that we offer no constructive proposals in our turn. I venture to offer this constructive proposal, not as a complete remedy for the disease, but as carrying out part of the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference. It is quite possible that the same result which we see at present would attend the adoption of this system, but, if it did, it would at any rate be more technically correct; and I feel that a number of people who otherwise might think that their views did not receive adequate representation in another place would have none of the grounds of complaint which they justly have at the present time. The really important thing is the need to alter our system for the new circumstances which have arisen. And now that there are large numbers added to our electorate it seems to me above all necessary and most important that the new voters should be fully persuaded that the votes which they cast have an equal effectiveness with those of others, and that they are adequately represented in the House of Commons. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Earl Beauchamp.)


My Lords, I may perhaps be allowed to say a few words on this Bill as I have always taken part in the debates in another place both upon this proposal for the alternative vote and on the proposal for Proportional Representation. I have always been, and I am now, resolutely opposed to any such change as that indicated by the noble Earl in his speech. Oddly enough, the main reason which governs me is that which apparently has largely operated with the noble Earl himself in bringing this Bill forward. He has pointed out with unanswerable truth that in recent General Elections, and perhaps more conspicuously so in the last than in any of its predecessors, the Government of the day has been returned by a large mass vote but has not obtained what is called a majority of the electorate. I am not quite sure that the noble Earl is correct; in his general reference to the past. I had occasion the other day to examine the figures of Elections going back for a great many years, and I am not sure that it is correct to say that the Government of to-day is the first that has been elected by a minority of the electors as a whole.

Be that as it may, I submit that in seeking to get a majority of voters for the Government of the day to represent one particular side or Party in politics we are trying after that which, in present conditions, is not to be attained. I think that the noble Earl and those who support this Bill fail to realise the tremendous change which has taken place in this country during the last ten or twelve years, and a Bill of this kind is, in my view, altogether uncalled for. As the noble Earl says there are three Parties. The other day we bad an election in which not only were three Parties represented, but one Party, that to which I have the honour to belong, was represented by two candidates. The noble Earl suggests, and in his Bill is good enough to give us an example, that where you have three candidates—of course, if there are more than three candidates it operates in the same way, with the necessary changes—with, we will say, a poll of 10,000 votes, and the first candidate only obtains between 3,000 and 4,000 votes and therefore is not elected by one group of the electors, there should be a recount and all the votes given to the third candidate at the bottom of the poll should be apportioned to the other two, according to the choice that the elector has male in voting.

I believe I am correct in stating the operation of the Bill. I do not believe in that principle; for this reason, first of all. I have said that I think the noble Earl is trying to secure a result which it is impossible to secure. I do not think one wants a majority of the electors as a whole. We have, political groups in this country and they have come to stay, at all events for some considerable time. Therefore, we ought to have a strong Government. It must of necessity be representative of the particular group which is in the majority. It is, I think, because that fact is not sufficiently recognised that these efforts are made to bring about some new system of recording your votes.

I am old enough to remember the days when we had two-member constituencies almost as a rule in county divisions, and each elector, of course, had two votes. There were frequently three or four candidates, and this was what went on in many instances in those days. The candidates wore selected from different parts of a division. The divisions were large and it was thought desirable, if possible, to choose somebody from each end of a division so that the representation should be equally shared by the division as a whole. What happened? The canvassers went to the supporters of candidate A in the north of the county and said: "Now, look here, you want your man elected, of course. You live near your man, you know him, you like him, and you trust him; but you do not care about candidate B who comes from the other end of the county and whom you do not know. You may as well give your second vote to my man." To my knowledge that argument was used. I have taken part in more than one election under that system, and that method of canvassing went on almost universally. Nobody can pretend that such a system of distributing the second vote is likely to secure the return of the Party which has the majority of votes in that division. It certainly did not do so in the cases to which I refer. It often happened that the political power of a particular division was paralysed by the fact that it was represented by two members of different political views and, therefore, as often as one voted in the "Aye" Lobby the other voted in the "No" Lobby. That is not a result which any one wishes to bring about.

The noble Earl pointed out that the Party which was in an absolute minority obtained no representation. I do not think we want it to have representation. I do not in the least want to encourage fads or freaks, promoted by certain bodies who come together and command a number of votes. That, as your Lordships know, goes on to some extent now. Bodies representing particular interests—such as anti-vaccination, or anti-something or other—are formed and highly organised, and they decide to throw their votes on one side or the other, not because they have a predilection for Conservatives, or Liberals, or Labour, but because they intend to exert the whole of their energies in support of a particular fad. If they gave their second or alternative vote to the man whom they thought would be most likely to give effect to their particular views, I do not think it would strengthen our Parliamentary system.

I desire that the Government of the day should be a strong Government, supported by a strong and stable majority, so that it can govern here at home and speak with authority abroad. I believe that can be brought about by the present system. It may be that the figures to which I referred a moment ago, and which I have not brought with me, show that a Government, whether Liberal, or Conservative, or Labour, was returned because it commanded certain groups in the country, and had not an actual majority of the electors behind it. But to quote, as the noble Earl did, the fact which is, of course, undisputed, that you have five millions on one side and eight millions against it, and to use it in condemnation of the present system is, I believe, to ignore the whole of the facts of the present political situation. The eight million voters that you are merging together differ from each other in their political views as much as they differ from those of the Party that has the majority.

In the recent General Election to which the noble Earl has referred, and on which he depends so much for his arguments in this particular case, there was as bitter a controversy between candidates belonging to the same Party as there was between Conservative and Labour candidates, and you had agreement upon several questions which, I suppose, were outside the ordinary controversies of political life, between the two old Parties as opposed to the third, or Labour Party. That is going to continue. It is worth noting that a do not know whether it was the same Bill or not; I believe it was somewhat different, but the principle was the same, that of the alternative vote—was introduced in the House of Commons which, of course, is more affected by it than your Lordships' House. The House of Commons rejected it by a sufficient majority, though not by a very big majority.

As everyone knows who has sat in the House of Commons, these questions are often regarded there as academic when they are brought forward by private Members. They do not then command the same amount of interest., and, therefore, the same number of votes as they do when they are brought forward with a great power behind them. At all events there was an emphatic rejection in the House of Commons of this proposal, and we know that, according to the Rules of the House of Commons, this Bill, were it to pass your Lordships' House, could rot be considered again in the House of Commons in the same session. Discussion is, therefore, rather academic. I am sure the noble Earl felt that himself, because he was good enough to tell us in his speech that he desired a discussion in your Lordships' House and he thought—and I am sure we all agree with that that discussion would probably be more interesting and more effective if it took place upon a definite scheme such as that which he has put before us rather than upon an abstract Resolution. We are much indebted to the noble Earl, if I may venture to say so, for putting his scheme forward in a concrete form.

The question is: What do you want? Are we seeking, as the noble Earl is, to have such a system of voting as will give a candidate before he is elected a clear majority of the votes recorded. It may be said that the noble Earl's system is no worse than any other system of voting. If, however, what we want is a simple form of election, one that will be within the understanding of all those who are taking part in it, and if, above all, we do not want to do anything which is likely to tend to log-rolling and to the exercise of all that kind of machinery which is brought into play to a sufficient extent already, then I think the system we have at the present time is, on the whole, the best. It is well understood by the people of this country. It gives us a Government which, as a rule, has a strong majority behind it, and that, I think, is what we really desire and what the majority of the people want.

The noble Earl quoted the Report of the Royal Commission with which I am very familiar. There is one other argument which, with respect, I would advance to your Lordships. It is this. There is not the smallest evidence to be found anywhere that any section of the electors of this country is taking the smallest interest in this question or desires this reform. I am sure the noble Earl will acquit me of saying anything that is intended to be offensive, but it is true that certain eminent statesmen, Members of Parliament, have advocated this reform, and it is a remarkable fact that these proposals invariably come from those who represent particular Parties which have been beaten in recent elections. I am sure not one of us would suggest that the noble Earl brings this forward because he thinks it will aid any particular Party. He brings it forward because he thinks that it is necessary to have a change in our system, and that this is the best one.

It is interesting to remember that since the great Reform Bill of 1832 we have gradually swept away all those methods of voting which were, peculiar, and sonic of which were indefensible, and we have come down to the present plain system where you have, as a rule, single-member constituencies in which each elector his one vote that he can give to the man of his choice. He probably has four or Eve candidates to choose from, and at least three groups. I do not think you will strengthen this country, or secure a better result, by altering the system in the manner proposed by the noble Earl, and I certainly shall record my vote against it. I hope your Lordships will decide that a change is not desirable. If it were proved to be desirable to effect a change of this kind it would be inopportune to do so directly after a General Election when the country had hardly settled down from the effects of that Election and when, as we all know is the case, the effect of the immense change in the number of electors of the country has hardly been fully appreciated. Therefore, both as regards the merits of the Bill and the time of its introduction, I hope your Lordships will reject by a decisive majority the Motion of the noble Earl.


My Lords, it may be convenient if in a very few words—I do not intend to detain your Lordships at any length—I stated the attitude of the Government in regard to this Bill. The noble Earl who introduced it stated, I thought with indefeasible accuracy, that this subject had frequently been discussed before both in this House and in other places. I had made, in fact, the same observation as my noble friend behind me that the subject was generally introduced after a General Election, and frequently by the Party which had not been victorious at the polls. I have seen enough of General Elections to have read an immense number of those extremely ingenious calculations which are invariably made after the declaration of the polls, and which seem to afford a great deal of consolation to those Parties that have not succeeded, because they generally prove that if there had been some change in the method by which those elections were conducted there would have been a large, or at least a substan- tial, majority for some other Party than that which was successful. I gather from what the noble Earl has said that he is rather altruistic in his considerations. I think he indicated that possibly the Labour Party rather than the Liberal Party might have profited from an arrangement of this kind. I thought I detected also a possible inaccuracy in the statement of the noble Earl. He referred to the change from two Parties to three Parties. I was under the impression that there were four Parties, but on that point the noble Earl no doubt is far better informed than I am.

There was a slight lacuna in the observations of the noble Earl when he referred solely to the figures which had been recorded at the Elections, and drew from those figures a number of very ingenious and rather startling inferences. Surely he ought to have taken into account also the considerable number of constituencies which were uncontested. I do not think, in the figures he gave, that he made any allowance for the enormous, and probably overwhelming, majorities there would have been for certain Parties had the other Parties thought it worth while to contest those constituencies. I do not in the least wish to make a special claim for the Party to which I belong, but I believe it is a fact that at the last General Election the popularity of Conservative candidates in certain constituencies was such that a larger number of Conservatives were returned unopposed than was the case with the candidates of any other Party. That, of course, may be due, to a certain extent, to the qualifications of particular Members.

My noble friend behind me (Viscount Long of Wraxall) has made a very strong criticism upon this proposed system. It is not my business to-day to go fully into all the arguments that may be adduced for or against a Bill of this kind, but I am not altogether converted to the idea that there is anything so abominable as the noble Earl suggests in the fact that the candidate who is elected by a particular constituency does not get at least a bare majority of the votes cast in that constituency. I do not see that there is anything very wrong in that state of things. You can surely agree that it is the verdict of the constituency, and that it is the way in which the voters in that constituency choose to exercise their vote. As a result, a man may be elected as a Member of Parliament who does not necessarily receive a majority of the total votes cast.

What, after all, is the assumption at the basis of some of these ingenious methods of electing Members of Parliament? It is that, though electors want to vote for some particular candidate, and prefer their own candidate to any other, yet they have in nice gradations a preference for second, third and fourth candidates. The result may be that the man elected is elected not because he is the particular choice of voters, or the man on whom the electors have set their hearts, but because they regard him as either secondly or thirdly less disadvantageous than others. Surely it is a difficult thing to examine closely the likings that people have for any particular candidates, and it is impossible to grade a second preference or third preference as equal to the full unqualified approval which is signified by giving a particular candidate your first vote.

If one went into the methods advocated by the noble Earl I should have something to say in criticism of them. Another Bill introduced into the House of Commons dealing with the same subject was rejected by a small majority. The method advocated by the noble Earl is this. Suppose there are three members standing for a single-member constituency. You select first for execution the particular man who gets the smallest number of first preference votes, and you distribute his second preference votes among the other candidates. It may perfectly well be that though this particular person got the smallest number of first preferences he might get a larger number of second preference votes than the other candidates, with the result that you would defeat. the whole object of electing the man on whom the mind of the electorate was most set and lead out to instant execution the very man who might have polled the largest number of votes had another system of voting been adopted.

The Bill which was introduced in another place proceeded on a different principle. It also had many objections. You had to take the first. preference votes and multiply them by two; take the second preference votes and multiply them by one—not a very difficult mathematical calculation—add them together and find an average. If any of the particular candidates received less than the average you struck him out and proceeded to divide up his votes in a similar manner to that advocated by the noble Earl. There is the highest authority for this particular method of dealing with these preference votes. The noble Earl made no reference to it and I am interested to know why he refuses this particular formula in deference to the one he has adopted. The formula I am quoting was in the Bill introduced by Dr. Chapple and it received the imprimatur of Sir Joseph Larmoor, one of the greatest mathematicians of the day. I think the noble Earl should say why he rejects this formula in favour of one which is not so well grounded. This formula recommended itself to some of the highest mathematical intellects at Cambridge. Whether it would have had equal effect in recommending itself to the ordinary voter I leave those of your Lordships who are more familiar with elections to decide.

It. is quite true, and I should say so as part of the history of this question, that the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Reform did advise in favour of Proportional Representation, and also in favour of applying the alternative vote though they did not state the system that was to be followed in single-member constituencies. The history of this question is rather interesting. There was a good deal of difference of opinion between this House and another place in connection with the Franchise Bill. Proportional Representation was rejected by the House of Commons and the alternative vote retained after a Division, by 125 to 124 in Committee and, after a Division, by 150 to 121 on Report—not very large majorities. In this House Proportional Representation was reinstated, after all the defects had been pointed out, and your Lordships deleted the alternative vote—but the House of Commons disagreed with the Amendments. Eventually a compromise was arrived at. The alternative vote was dropped and provision was made for a scheme to be prepared under which, if approved by both Houses, one hundred Members would be elected by Proportional Representation. The scheme prepared after the passing of the Act was rejected by the House of Commons, and the alternative vote as well as Proportional Representation then dropped.

I have no doubt that other noble Lords will discuss fully other aspects of this question, but one thing must be said, and said definitely, by all those who have experience of elections. It is this, that as regards canvassing, log rolling and arrangements of that kind, what has taken place in the past will be nothing to what must take place in the future when you have people not only asked for their first vote but for their second, third and fourth preference votes, and the complications and gradations that will go on as to whether you should give your votes to this man or that man, to this Party or the other, will be something prodigious.

It has been observed with great truth, and it was obvious when we were discussing the Franchise Bill in this House, that the whole movement from 1832 has been towards a complete simplification of the franchise. All those elaborate complications, which are a survival of the past dating from Henry VI, were swept away by your Lordships when you introduced this simpler system. This is a reversal of that process. You are introducing a number of complications which certainly have not been demanded by the country, and which would be forced on the country against its will if your Lordships tried to pass a measure of this kind. From what I have said I do not think your Lordships will suppose that I am a keen supporter of the measure. On behalf of the Government I have to say that in all the circumstances they would be unable to give time in another place for the discussion which a Bill of this kind requires. Your Lordships are, of course, free to deal as you like with any measure which comes before you, but I ask you to consider whether there would be any great advantage in discussing at great length through all its stages a Bill which could not be carried to discussion or properly dealt with in another place, and must inevitably die there.


My Lords, the noble Viscount who has spoken on behalf of the Government has directed most of his speech towards a proposal that is not contained in the Bill. He has directed most of his remarks to an attack on the principle of Proportional Representation; and Proportional Representation is not brought forward by this measure. As the noble Earl who introduced the Bill pointed out quite accurately, within the terms of the Report made by Mr. Lowther, as he then was, you find support for Proportional Representation in the larger industrial districts and support for the alternative vote in single-member constituencies where there are more than two candidates. There is nothing, therefore, in the proposal for the alternative vote brought forward by the noble Earl that directly affects the principle of Proportional Representation.

I wish to make that point quite clear, for this reason. I am a very strong advocate of Proportional Representation, and I should be extremely sorry if it were thought that the alternative vote proposal were in any way an alternative to the wider proposal involved in the principle of Proportional Representation. But I do not want to go into that question this afternoon. As the noble Viscount has said, it has been very fully discussed, and Proportional Representation was adopted in this House by a very large majority, while the alternative vote was rejected, although I admit that I personally voted in support of it because I thought that both proposals ought to be contained in the Bill.

I should like to say a few words in answer to the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Long of Wraxall. If I understood the underlying argument of his speech, it is that you must have a distorted representative system in order that you may have sufficient stability of government under representative institutions. That is not representing unfairly what the noble Viscount said. He says, in effect: "What you want to aim at is not to get in your House of Commons a representation of the electorate. That is not your aim and object. Your aim and object is to get a a governmental system, and in order to get a governmental system it is right, in fact it is an advantage, to have a distorted system of representation." It is against that doctrine in any form that I wish to make my protest in supporting the proposal of the noble Earl.

In listening to the noble Viscount, Lord Long, I could not help remembering what was once said by Pitt's Attorney-General in those old times for which, no doubt, the noble Viscount has a great reverence. It was in 1797 that Pitt's Attorney-General said that it was high treason for anyone to agitate for a representative system in this country, and that as a matter of fact our Government was the direct antithesis of what was meant by a representative Government. If, of course, you want to maintain a principle of that kind, if you do not want to have a true system of representative Government then I can understand the non possumus attitude which the noble Viscount adopted. But surely that is a complete fallacy. What you mean by representative Government is a Government which is so fairly representative of all classes and opinions in the country as to escape, on the one side, the dangers of a too strong bureaucracy and, on the other side, those dangers which are summarised under the name and form of what is called direct action. I do not think you can get in the long run a body strong enough either to keep bureaucracy in control or to meet the claims of direct action unless it is really a representative Government, elected by means which give all classes and all modes of opinion a fair opportunity of expression.

In the second place, I would join issue with what the noble Viscount, Lord Long, said as to the effect of our present system. I agree largely with the letter which appeared in the newspapers the other clay under the signature of Mr. Austen Chamberlain, a letter which, in my view, entirely condemns the system which is in operation at the present time, because, as he says, the old two-party system is going by, and an educated electorate such as we have now demands some system by which it can express its own views in its own way.

I see that a great authority on these subjects is present this afternoon in the person of the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, and, since he is present, I should like to ask him whether the report in The Times of a speech made by Captain Guest a short while ago is accurate. If it is accurate, it explains to my mind in a much more practical way than what was said by the noble Viscount how Elections are carried out at the present day. As regards log-rolling, to which the noble Viscount referred, I can conceive no system of log-rolling which would be so unfortunate, in the light of the true principles of representative government, as that which was brought forward in Captain Guest's speech. Captain Guest referred to what was said by the noble Viscount, then Sir George Younger. Perhaps the noble Viscount would allow me to read an extract which I made, and he may be able to tell your Lordships whether it is accurate or not. This speech was made by Captain Guest at the time when he was Chief Liberal Whip, and it relates, not to the recent Election, but to the Election of 1918, though the moral to be derived from it is the same whether you consider one Election or another. The speech was made after negotiations with the Independent Liberals had failed.

Captain Guest is reported to have used these words:— We therefore proceeded to the agreement with the Conservative Party as to what should be done with regard to seats. He said, 'Take your hundred and fifty.' That was a generous offer. As a matter of fact, 137 were returned. What representative system is there in a bargain of that kind? It is all very well for the noble Viscount to talk about log-rolling. That is worse than any logrolling. What becomes of the independent elector? What becomes of his chance of voting after Captain Guest and Sir George Younger had met? "You are to have 150 seats" says Sir George Younger. "I will not oppose you in 150 seats, but let the Conservatives have the rest." "A generous offer," says Captain Guest., and, as a matter of fact, the Liberals got, only 137 seats. Is that the old fashioned principle which has produced Governments in this country, according to Lord Long of Wraxall, from time immemorial? That is exactly what happens, and it is the worst result of the present system that, instead of a proper system of representative Government, you have a system which—apart from mere figures here or there—produces nothing but distorted results.

Let me apply another criticism to the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Long of Wraxall. The difficulties which, I think, he had in his mind are not difficulties which arise from the adoption of the alternative vote. They are difficulties which arise from the existing system, acting unjustly, as it does, at the present time. I want to snake that quite clear. Not only in this country, where I thought the figures were known to everyone—although I agree that you do not wants mere mathematical calculation, which may very likely he incorrect—is what I call distorted representation the result of our present system. To illustrate this point I will take figures which have been supplied to me from the results of recent General Elections elsewhere. In New Zealand they have the same system as we have in England. If Lord Long will permit me to use a sporting expression, it is called the system of "first past the post." It does not matter how you get there, or how few votes you obtain; get your head "first past the port" and you are elected.

A General Election was held in New. Zealand in 1922, and a General Election in Canada in 1921 was conducted on the same principle. What was the result? After the General Election in New Zealand you got no majority, you got no, stability such as the noble Viscount, Lord Long of Wraxall, hopes to obtain. You got the exact contrary. Let me give your Lordships the figures. There were four Parties. The Government won 36 seats, the Liberals 34, Labour 17, and Independents 1. Therefore, adopting the, very system that we have, which is admittedly imperfect, admittedly distorted, and which admittedly does not give true representative principles a chance of expression, you get there every evil to which the noble Lord has called attention—you get impossible conditions, because you do not get, a majority in favour of any one Party. It is the same in Canada, where I think the results are very striking. The Liberals got 117, the Conservatives 50, the Progressives 65, and Labour and Independents 3—almost an exact balance, 117 Liberals and 118 for the other Parties combined. Now that is obtained under the same system as we have in this country at this date, but I want to say that it did not mean you had unstable government in Canada. Probably there has never been a more stable Government than under these conditions. The Government had a majority very often of 70 or 80 and a constant majority of 17 to 18, and at the present time they are in a stronger position than ever before. Therefore, that does not indicate that there would, be any difficulty, even if Proportional. Representation were adopted.

Now let me give a last illustration on the other side, and I think it is a very striking one. It is the Election in Southern Ireland. I believe that everyone who has studied the statistics of that Election fully will agree that but for Proportional Representation having been adopted the Free State could not have won, in the sense of winning by a substantial majority, because a study of the second and third votes, to which the noble Viscount has referred, disclosed the fact that it was the preferential system of voting, and nothing else, which really gave the Free State a majority, with which they have been able to carry on under the extremely difficult conditions in Ireland. Your Lordships know perfectly well that before that Election an arrangement was proposed between Mr. Collins and Mr. de Valera, just as it was proposed between Captain Guest and the noble Viscount, but that was thrown over—that could not stand—in the face of Proportional Representation. It came to an end when the Election was carried on under a system which gave something like true representation. Whatever attitude the noble Viscount may take in regard to this Bill, I hope it will not go out that in the opinion of this House there is no alternative to a system which is admittedly wrong, admittedly distorted, and in my opinion wholly insufficient, in a democratic age, to do what a representative system ought to be able to do, and that is to give a firm answer to any suggestion of direct action. If the noble Earl goes to a Division I shall certainly support him.


My Lords, I am very disappointed by the attitude taken up by the Government with regard to this Bill, and I should like, I will not say so much with regard to this Bill as with regard to this subject, to state somewhat shortly why. First of all, I think the Bill itself is not open to all the objections brought against it. I do not think it is really taking a retrograde step in the direction of introducing complications which have been swept away since 1832. The main tendency since 1832 has been to sweep away complications in the franchise qualification, but this Bill does not touch the franchise qualification. The chief mischiefs which required simplification in 1832 were the great variety of fancy franchises and franchise qualifica- tions, and I agree that the simplification of franchise Qualification has been entirely in the right direction, and that any retrograde step on that subject would be undesirable.

As I have said, however, this Bill does not touch the franchise qualification, but it merely affects the method of voting, and I do not think it ought to be suggested—I do not say it has actually been suggested—that my noble friend in introducing this Bill has been prompted by any question of Party expediency. After all, the Bill is in accordance with one of the suggestions of the Speaker's Conference. That Conference, I think, was beyond suspicion of looking at this question of voting from any angle of vision of Party expediency, and I think any Bill which is introduced in accordance with a Report of that Conference ought fairly to be regarded as not necessarily dictated by any narrow view of whether it is likely to suit one Party or another, but as being the outcome of the impression produced on opinion by the Report of the Speaker's Conference and an impartial study of the whole question of voting.

I regret very much that the noble Viscount, the Secretary of State for India, should have treated the matter, as I think, too much from the point of view of expediency rather than that of principle. I am not thinking, in reviewing this question of voting in my own mind, much or at all of the past. Certainly I am not thinking much of the present, but I am thinking of the future. I do not say that so far any very great evils have arisen from the present system of voting; but times have changed. I agree that under the old system of voting we have, to a very remarkable degree in this country, secured stable government, although there is no provision in the Constitution that we should have stable government. Under the Constitution of the United States stable government, for four years is secured. In this country the Government lives from day to day upon a Parliamentary majority, and it is remarkable what stable Governments we have had, when there is nothing in the Constitution to prevent us from having very unstable Governments, examples of which, for a period of years, we have seen in neighbouring countries.

But that has been under the two-party system. The two-party system has gone, and there are people who think that the pressure of events may again reduce our electoral arrangements to a two-party system. I very much doubt that. We have certainly got a three-party system, and I do not believe that under a three-party system, which may become still more complicated, we shall secure in the future Governments as stable as those which we have had in the past under the two-party system, unless we introduce improvements in the method at voting which will guard against. the dangers which have been comparatively slight under the two-party system, but which may become the most important and dominating factors in our political arrangements under the tendency to have three parties or perhaps more.

At the present moment the Government, as has been pointed out, have a Parliamentary majority, although they had not a majority of votes. It is perfectly open to supporters of the Government to argue that if the alternative vote, or anything of that kind, had been in existence at the last Election they would have got a majority, as a result of recounts of votes in the country, and even increased their Parliamentary majority beyond that which they have now. It does not follow, under our present three-party system, that because a Government gets an actual majority of seats without a majority of the electors, therefore under the alternative vote its position might not have been improved rather than worsened. But, even if it is the case that the present Government have a Parliamentary majority, which represents not a majority but a minority of votes, at any rate they have the defence to offer that at the last Election they themselves put forward hardly any programme, except, perhaps, the policy of retrenchment. I never remember a Party which went to the country with so small a programme and so few promises as the present Government made at the last Election. Some of those who were opposed to them had very large programmes, and all of them, I think, had a larger programme than the Conservative Party, though they were not agreed about their programmes. And it is perfectly arguable that at the last Election if there was not, as there was not, an absolute majority of votes for the very small programme of the Conservative Party, there was at any rate no greater number of votes for any of the other programmes put forward.

But it is very dangerous in a question which really ought to be decided upon principle to deal with it purely on the facts of the moment. What I see ahead as a possibility—I think even a proltability—is a danger which I should have thought would have been pointed out rather from the Conservative side of the House than from this side. You have an increasing tendency to extreme opinion in this country, as in many other countries. At present those opinions are held by a comparatively small minority, but that minority has a tendency to grow. Under out system some years hence you may have a solid, compact, and very well organised Party with a programme which to many people will seem extreme, but other Parties will be divided, and it will be quite possible that a Party without a majority of votes in the country, but with a very trenchant and searching programme, may come into power with a considerabe Parliamentary majority. Should that happen in future, I think those who are members of the Government now will be exceedingly sorry that they have taken the attitude that they have done to-day—an entirely negative attitude—towards this question.

With regard to this particular Bill I agree that no private Member's Bill can possibly deal with the matter effectively. It has no chance of passing through Parliament, and my noble friend, in moving the Second Reading, said that he put it forward as a concrete measure in order that he might raise discussion on the question involved, because that discussion might be more effective on a concrete proposal. I regret very much that the Government have concentrated rather on criticism of this concrete proposal than on discussion of the general principle involved. I see no security for the future unless there is some alteration in our method of voting which will secure that in single-member constituencies—where in future there will probably be three or more candidates—no one is declared elected until it is apparent that he has a majority of the votes given. As the numbers of candidates increase more and more in individual constituencies you will have Members returned who do not represent a majority of the electors in those constituencies. Surely the principle we ought to look to is that, where there is increasing political difference of opinion among electors, that difference of political opinion should be so sifted that at last it results in the return of a man who does represent a majority of the electors. And until you have the system of the alternative vote you will, I think, increasingly find that candidates are returned in constituencies by a minority vote.

Electors have their preferences. There may be four candidates, and a minority of electors may prefer each one of those candidates, who may each obtain no more than about one quarter of the total votes given. A constituency that does that ought to be regarded as not yet having expressed its opinion, and it ought to give a better opinion than to return a Member by a comparatively small proportion of the votes polled. We want to get stable government, we want to get an expression of opinion from the constituencies, and we ought to have some method by which at least we can find out what is the opinion of the majority of the electors. There is more than one way of doing that, of course. You may say that this Bill does not provide the best way. The second ballot is another way of doing it. But to leave the present system as it is, with the growing tendency for the increase of Parties, for multiplication of candidates, for confusion in elections, is, I think, going to be increasingly dangerous both to stable government and to fair and adequate representation of the real opinion of the country. I think the political changes that are taking place will reveal more and more the evils of the present system, and we may one day find ourselves with a Government in power which does not represent anything like the majority of the electors in the country, and which, if the opportunity occurred of having the Election over again, would not be returned to power. When you get that position, if you ever do, you will put a great strain on the working of democratic and representative government.

I would regard this question simply from the point of view of principle, and I would say definitely that some change is required to guard against these dangers in future. I would ask the Government to reconsider very seriously the extremely negative attitude which they have taken up. It may become increasingly difficult to introduce a remedy when the dangers become more apparent afterwards. At the present time it would probably be more easy to deal with this question than it may be a few years hence; there is an opportunity now. I do not ask the. Government to accept the Bill of my noble friend, but I should be very disappointed if we did not get from the Government a declaration that they are alive to the evils and the dangers of the present system, and that they do not regard the fact that the present system of voting has worked fairly well in the past as any guarantee that it will guard us against the increasing dangers of the future. I should like His Majesty's Government to make a declaration that they will not put aside the expression of opinion by the Speaker's Conference that it has been felt that some change is required, and that they will regard this as a measure that must be given full consideration if our democratic institutions are to be safeguarded and we are to be protected from the possibility of having a Government which has not merely a Parliamentary majority representing a minority of votes but a Parliamentary majority which may be absolutely opposed to the majority of the voters of the country.


My Lords, I suppose that after the appeal that has been addressed to the Government by the noble Viscount who leads the Opposition, I should be suspected of discourtesy to him if I did not say a word in reply. I hope he will excuse me if I am very brief, because at the present moment I have one of those important engagements elsewhere with which, from his acquaintance with the Foreign Office, he is only too familiar. I would like to assure my noble friend that no one on this side of the House either blames the noble Earl for having brought the subject forward or suspects him for a moment of having done it in a Party interest. Obviously, it is a, question which deserves the attention of any deliberative Assembly and any Government, and the fact that these proposals are usually made by Parties who have been unsuccessful in a General Election does not in the least degree necessarily imbue them with a Party taint or pre- vent their being regarded with respect by the Government. There is all the greater right on the part of the noble Earl to bring this matter forward because, as the noble Viscount, Lord Grey, has pointed out., this was one of the recommendations which were favourably commented on in the Report of one of the most important and representative Committees that has even been constituted. From the fact that this particular Bill has met with the reception that it has to-day, and the fact that His Majesty's Government, through their spokesman, have said that they can give no facilities for it, the inference must not be drawn that we regard the Report of that Committee with disrespect, much less with anything in the nature of contempt.

My conclusion is not the same as that of the noble Viscount because my premises are not the same. On the whole I am disposed to think, from such experience as I have had of public life, that our old-fashioned system in this country, whether you describe it by the metaphor employed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Parmoor, or not, has worked well; and I am disposed all the more to think so when I contrast it from the systems that I see in existence in foreign countries. Now, during the last year or two, I have been thrown necessarily into contact with the representatives of foreign Powers, and in the intervals of Conferences I have discussed with them the particular political and Parliamentary systems that they have in their own countries. There are now several of the great States of Europe where some system either of the alternative vote or Proportional Representation prevails. I take more particularly Italy. During the last three or four years I have been confronted with the phenomenon of a series of unstable Italian Governments, seldom lasting for more than a few months, and depriving their representatives at Allied Conferences of that power which results from stability of institutions. I think I have put. the same questions to every succeeding Italian Minister, be it Prime Minister or Foreign Minister, with whom I happened to be associated, and on every occasion I have had the same reply: "The weakness of our institutions and the instability of our Governments are due to Proportional Representation and to Proportional 'Representation alone." I only mention that in passing. I have not, of course, time to develop the argument to-night.

Another premise of the noble Viscount that. I should be somewhat reluctant to accept is his proposition that the old two-party system is necessarily dead and that because there are three Parties now, or, as some one argued, four Parties, that is going to be an inevitable feature of our future political life. I am far from clear that this is the case. I think it would be a somewhat rash thing, having admitted that on the whole we have got a good result from the existing system of election under our present division of Parties, to destroy or make away with it because at the present moment the two-party system seems likely to be replaced, at any rate temporarily, by a larger number of political bodies.

But where I thought the noble Viscount was a little unreasonable was in this. Admitting that the noble Earl had a perfect right to introduce this subject, admitting that it is a subject to which the Government, if it has any long tenure of office, ought in all probability to turn their attention, all we can do at the moment is to deal with the particular Bill which the noble Earl has placed before us. It is a narrowly restricted proposal recommending one form of the alternative vote. To that proposal objections have been raised, and upon it criticisms, which I own I thought were formidable, have been passed. Is it not a little unreasonable that the noble Viscount should deduce from that that His Majesty's Government are resolutely opposed to consider all questions of Parliamentary or electoral reform? That is much too large a deduction draw from much too small a premise.

I would, therefore, say that, opposed as I am to the Bill which we have had before us this evening, inevitable as I think the answer of my noble friend was, although personally many of us consider the present system the best, I am far from asking the House to conclude that we think it incapable of modification, and if the noble Viscount, speaking with his great authority as Leader of the Opposition in this House, desires at any time in the future either this Session or in another Session to put before us in the form of a Resolution, or a Bill, or in any ether way, the considered opinion of himself and of his colleagues upon the whole question of electoral reform, of course we shall give it the attention which his high position and his representative character would entitle him to expect. But for the moment I think your Lordships will agree that, as regards the narrow issue before us, His Majesty's Government could not adopt any other attitude than that which has been announced by my noble friend, the Secretary of State for India.


My Lords, in asking your Lordships' permission not to proceed further with this Bill, I should like to say a few words I think your Lordships generally will agree that we have had a very interesting and valuable discussion. I was especially grateful to the noble Marquess the Leader of the House for sounding a more optimistic note with regard to the intentions of His Majesty's Government than we heard in the speech which was made to us by the noble Viscount, the Secretary of State for India. I do not feel at all sure that it is the business of noble Lords on this side of the House to put forward a measure—that is a function of the Government of the day—which is seriously intended to pass through both Houses of Parliament.

My object, as I explained before, was to provide a subject for discussion, and I am specially grateful to those noble Lords who were good enough to say that, in their opinion, I was actuated by altruistic motives. I think I was; because if a system of this kind had been in vogue at the last General Election, I firmly believe that the majority by virtue of which noble Lords opposite hold office now would have been considerably larger than it is at present. I had, I confess, some hopes, if the Government had held out any possibility of smiling on this Bill, that it might have become law, and that, all the by-elections between now and the next General Election would be held under this system and that, with the experience which we should have gained of the working of this system, it might then have been possible for the Government either to use it at the next General Election or to introduce some other measure of reform. However, though I confess that I am disappointed, I admit that I am not altogether surprised, and I will ask your Lordships' permission not to proceed further with the Bill.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.